TIRANA, Albania — Earlier this month, European Union Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele canceled a trip to Algeria to dine with Albania’s Prime Minister Sali Berisha and Socialist Party leader Edi Rama at the posh Crocodile restaurant in Strasbourg.

But this was no social repast. Fuele hoped to talk down the two Albanian leaders from the war of words that has gridlocked the country since Berisha’s Democratic Party narrowly won parliamentary elections held on June 28, 2009.

Nearly a year after Albanians cast their ballots in the poll — considered a litmus test for the country’s fitness to continue the EU accession process — a wave of recent protests represent the latest escalation of a row that has poisoned the political climate.

The Socialists boycotted parliament when the new session began in September until this Monday, claiming that the government’s alleged fraud was to blame for their electoral loss. For the past month they have held daily rallies in the capital, Tirana, calling for a recount. Some of the protests have drawn tens of thousands of supporters.

The agreement to meet for EU-sponsored talks prompted the Socialist members of parliament and their supporters to end the 19-day hunger strike they conducted from a tent outside of Berisha’s office. As it turned out, however, the appetite of the two leaders for a political compromise remained weak.

As the crisis threatens to destabilize the country’s fragile institutions, bringing up comparisons with the political instability in Thailand, the EU is looking on with growing dismay. The meeting in Strasbourg ended only with an agreement to try to organize a similar meeting two weeks later, when experts from Brussels will present common points that might close the gap between the two Albanian political parties.

Albania became a NATO member state in April 2009 and has submitted its application for EU membership. The European Commission (EC), the EU’s administrative branch, is in the process of preparing its opinion on whether the country is ready to become an EU candidate country. With the country’s main political institution, the parliament, not functioning properly, experts worry Albania might receive a negative evaluation.

“Obviously, the conflict between the two political sides and the failure to find a compromise solution will be an obstacle to Albania’s EU integration and it’s difficult to envisage progress being made while the opposition is boycotting the legislative process in parliament,” said Gabriel Partos, an eastern Europe analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Although the situation has deteriorated markedly with the opposition’s three-week-long hunger strike and several attempts to block roads in a show of civil disobedience, Partos said a comparison with the crisis in Thailand, where there was a military coup against the elected prime minister, is not particularly relevant or helpful.

“Crucially the process of protests has been peaceful and both sides have wisely refrained from using violence and there is hope for some kind of negotiated solution that needs to be nurtured,” he said.

The Socialist-led opposition demands an election recount, saying complete transparency in the electoral process is necessary to avert future fraud — a constant concern in the two decades since Albania emerged from the Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha.

The government has ruled out a recount, however, contending that the courts have already dismissed the Socialists’ request. The authorities say parliament would therefore be overstepping its powers and taking on the role of the judiciary if it ordered a recount.

In a joint statement issued last week ahead of the Strasbourg meeting, Fuele and EU High Representative Catherine Ashton said that Albania stands at a crucial moment on its path toward EU integration and warned that a “range of domestic challenges require political courage.”

“The EU is seriously concerned about the continuing political stalemate, the dysfunctional parliament and the possible systemic effects across their institutions,” the statement read.
“Albania's prospects should not be further affected by a continuation of the status quo," Ashton and Fuele emphasized.

However, according to Partos, there is a limit to what Brussels can do unless the two political adversaries on the ground come to an arrangement.

“The dilemma facing the EU is that it does not want to be seen as interfering in the affairs of an independent country that intends to enter its club in Brussels,” he said.

“It ultimately can withhold its benefit of integration, however it’s not in the business of using the stick but it can hold back the carrot.” 


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